tv [untitled] June 30, 2011 1:00am-1:30am PDT
law. the rule of frame is the street people cannot sleep under the bridge, but the chief of police and the district attorney cannot sleep under the bridge. see how fair it is? it's equal. isn't it? [applause] >> actually, we'll have the d.a. here and the chief of police. so we can ask them that question. [laughing] now, sheldon, you've written books about a fictional defense attorney. the stories that you tell really get into, i think, the issues and stories of our time. and that's why your books have been so popular. first of all, you know, how did
you become a writer? why did you become a writer? and how did you end up writing did a criminal defense attorney in san francisco, of all places? >> i was not told i would follow tony serra. i need to go back and prepare a little more. [laughing] i learned something, too. i guess i better stand up. [laughing] i'm really honored to be here. i'm the toy department. i write novels about the types of cases that lawyers like tony handle. in the daytime i work for a big law firm of the type that tony probably would not hold in the highest of esteem, but i'm delighted to be here. you know, i think if you talked to most authors, they will tell you that there is something
hot-wired into our system that says we need to try to tell a story. there is nothing at all in my background. i am an absolutely accidental writer. there is nothing in my background which suggests i should be writing novels. i grew up in chicago. i write books about san francisco. i studied accounting at the university of illinois. i have been a corporate and securities attorney for 28 years. i've now written seven best-selling novels about murder trials, death penalty cases, and courtroom drama. i have never handled a criminal case in my life. [laughing] so all of you out there who are thinking of writing novels, there is hope. but i did have this feeling a long time ago, probably from the time i was in high school, that at some point i would like to try to write a novel. and i can't explain why.
i do know that when i read "presumed innocent" on an airplane in 1988, i decided that if i ever get around to writing the novel that i probably will never write, it will be a courtroom novel. and scott didn't invent the genre. neither did john grisham. earl stanley gardner was writing courtroom drama in the 1930's and 1940's. "anatty of a murder" came out in 1958. first we have "to kill a mockingbird," which most lawyers and most lawyer authors will tell you is kind of the seminal work of why we got interested. and i started writing a novel as i was approaching my 40th birthday. i wrote most of it on a ferry going to and from work every day. it took me three years. and that book became "special circumstances," story of a murder in a big law firm. it came out in 2000 and spent seven weeks on "the new york times"' bestsellers' list.
so for those of you who have bought my books, i thank you, because now i don't have to practice law full-time anymore. >> but all kidding aside, you know, i think crime novelists and readers of crime novels whether it's lawyer books or whether it's private detectives or cops, you know, in my world i'm like -- unlike tony's, i can control the outcome. i can get justice in my books because i can fix the ending. and i start -- and most authors do i start with the ending. i know who did it, how and why. and by god, when i write that book, i'm going to make sure justice is served. i think that's why people keep coming back to lawyer books in particular because there's a lot of drama in the courtroom. there's always a murder. there's always big stakes. i've written books about death penalty cases. the stakes don't get any bigger than that.
and i think it was important to me to have the center of my books a defense attorney who is the kind of guy, the tony serra's of the world, the person you would call if you got into serious trouble. and there are a lot of corrupt lawyers in my books. there are a lot of nasty people in my books. there are a lot of lawyers who are not portrayed in a particularly favorable way. but the centers of my story are two small time criminal defense attorneys who work on michigan street. and if you get accused of a crime, those are the people you want to call. >> that's my approach. and they're both former public defenders, right? >> yes, they are. they are both former public defenders here in san francisco. without giving away too much of the story, there may be a return at some point to that particular office where they would, of course, be working for you. >> anytime. [laughing] there seems to be such a huge
disconnect, you know, between what you see on tv and even what you read about. most of the tv shows like "law & order" you have a judge who's eminently fair, a prosecutor who is completely ethical, a defense attorney who doesn't show up half the time. these images really result -- i know this as a public defender, because the portrayals of public defenders are usually negative. why? i ask this to the entire panel. why is there such a disconnect between the reality of what really happens in our court and the way that many americans are force fed, really, this mythology? tony? >> i think in a corrupt society in a perfect society as we have, there has to be a hope or a
projected ideal that there is justice, we'll say, in the court system and that there's idealistic lawyers, and there's fair judges, and there's not, you know, indelible bias and prejudice and rac racism, sexis, and all of those things dissipate, you know, when we approach the per diem. it's just like blinding our self. it's a way of taking the placebo instead of the medicine. great reform is required. we're threatened now by totalitarian tactics, grand juries, informants, mandatory sentencing. it's not very good, my friends. we're losing constitutional rights every day. and i think the way we appease our conscious, those of us who
desire, i guess, not to probe and not to reform and not to speak out is we pretend that things have occurred in courts that didn't real liquor. [applause] >> it sounds like all of those things would make great tv or, of course, a great novel. paulette, you've spent so much time in court watching cases. what observations have you made after the hours and hours that you've spent? you're creating not only art, but you're creating a representation of the emotional heart of a case. what have you gleaned from your experience of watching so many trials? >> well, this is sort of like the fly on the wall, the court artist. i haven't an aperture that is
completely open because i'm trying to take in as much as i can possibly absorb. and at the same time i'm very focused on what i'm doing. and i have to remember everything that i'm doing. so as far as the nitpicking particulars of a trial, that goes past me. but what i do see is -- i believe there's a science called cybertronics or something, where you get frozen to death. and that's kind of what it's like. everybody's, for the most part, the lawyers in a trial seem very frozen. i mean a poker match has more emotion in it. they're holding their card close to their chest. they don't want to really see what's going on. from the artist view, they're holding back whatever is going on. one of the reasons tony excites
me as a lawyer is that he's out there. he is transparent. you can see exactly what's going on. you can even see it while it's going on. it's sort of like one of these things you see the digestion taking place because it's all on some transparent piece of, i don't know, behind glass or something. so there's this combination of what is held back and what is sort of scrolled out or spooled out little by little. what i see in court is, of course, the incredible inequities. i tend to have a great soft spot for people who are not of life of privilege and whose lives are very challenged and who deal with them in the best ways they can. everybody wants, you know, some sort of decency for their family. and everybody''s capable of
incredible rage and probably even the urge to kill. they're also capable of greatness and goodness if that side is sort of coaxed out of them. so criminals to me, anyway, are a group of people who have fallen on hard times. i've been there. i've never really done criminal acts, but i've certainly been pushed to limits that could easily become that. i think it's the humanity that is lacking in the courtroom. and i think that a lot of what we see in the justice system today is done because people can do it. i think as was spoken earlier about trials, people get away with as much as they can. so for the criminal to be the bad guy, what about the politicians in this country? what about all of these other
kinds of criminal acts that are going on? i see that there is a lust for power, there is a lust for control, and there is a lust to put the lesser down. it happens a lot in court. and that's what i see. >> we're going to have the opportunity to have you ask questions. so the ushers have cards. so just raise your hand if you'd like to fill out a card, and they will submit them to me and i will ask the questions. john, you know, over time we've seen the portrayals, whether it's -- just take for example the defense attorney. a lot of us grew up watching "perry mason." you don't see those kinds of movies now it seems to be almost seasonal that you have, you know, either positive or negative portrayals. but it seems to follow a certain
cycle. we have so many shows on tv now about, you know, police and law enforcement. i think we have, what, maybe three different "c.s.i. i "series now, "law & order" parts one, two, and three. what do you think counts for the portrayal of our justice system and how it shifts over time? and also if you've seen in terms of what writers have done or haven't done. >> you know, i was -- when i was listening to mr. serra, i was thinking, you know, actually the law is this huge thing. and there are parts of it that work really well. and when i started out, i was a young lawyer at a large wall street law firm. and believe it or not, we did really good work. and since we typically litigate
against or are involved with other large corporate law firms, the other people did railly good work. and since we were typically in federal court, the judges were pretty good. so what i'm trying to say is, is it actually works in some levels. you know? it doesn't work when you get down to the criminal level, when you get down to people who are poor, frankly. you know? there's a strait fiction in the law that mirrors the whole society. anyway. i wanted to say that. i've worked on a bunch of television shows. i've thought about this question a lot. and i have no idea how this cycle works. but one of the shows that i really enjoyed was "l.a. law." the reason i liked "l.a. law" was that it was about the kind of business of law. you know? a lot of it was about the real,
you know, business. you have to work hard in that context to get drama. it's harder to write a show like "l.a. law" because you have to find drama almost in the ordinary practice of law. to my way of thinking, you know, doing a crime show or even a criminal defense show, that's the easy stuff to do. you know? there's drama that's inherent in it. the hard stuff to do is say, like "the paper chase" where they're going to the library. really. so you've got to figure out a way to make that interesting. we did a show called "scavenger hunt," a massive search through all the libraries. and it's actually a very exciting show. but when we went to the network, they said, what are you shooting? we said we're shooting an episode with seven libraries. and they were like, we got to
cancel this. how did osborn get here? you know? that's the hard kind of stuff for television. i'd like to see more of that. i am so sick of "law & order." [laughing] and all of that stuff. i'm not answering the question, but i'm getting stuff off my shoulders. >> let me get something off my shoulder. with no lack of respect. wall street lawyers are serving capitalistic corporations who have taken our democracy in hostage. you served one dinosaur fighting another dinosaur for the last firms. that is shifting money, you know, from one capitalistic entity to another. so if you think that works, i think it's a manifestation of the malfunction of the entire
system. [applause] >> why do i think this audience is going to be on his side? [laughing] i actually -- i don't disagree with what you're saying. but i'm saying, from a functional standpoint it works. i mean, wall street law firms work. they do great work. they do the best practice of law that is done in the country. and if you don't believe that, you're just wrong. [laughing] >> no. the death penalty, appellate lawyers do the best work in the country. their objective is valid. and their industry matches your industry and the competency that you speak of. >> this could be fun. >> i disagree. >> ok. i think we can agree that, you
know, when you're talking about the law, it's really a question of whose interest you serve. and when you talk about, you know, for example, defending poor people or the criminal courts, the resources just aren't there. it is interesting. i met the public defender in england. they told me -- he told me there that an indingon person can go to any of the big law firms, like morris and forestier, and ask them to represent you and the government will pay for it. they will pay every penny. and he told me that they spend something like $1.5 billion there on representing poor people in criminal cases. and they spend less than a third of that on prosecution. and i said to him, well, you know, what do people say about that? he goes, oh, the prosecutor's always complaining, saying that we're out resourced and it's not
fair. but it's just the way it is. because that's the price of insuring that a poor person gets the same amount of justice as a rich person. here, for every dollar that goes 23450 law enforcement -- goes into law enforcement, incarceration, there's probably about five or six cents that goes to representation of poor people in terms of legal rights. so, you know, fundamentally it raises, i think, the discussion here, a very good question. that it comes down to really a question of resources. sheldon, let me ask you. in the stories that you try to tell, there is a moral there. you do talk about the death penalty. you do talk about -- and obviously there's a sensationalism that comes with it. what are you trying to communicate about the justice system? is it just entertainment or is there something that's more than
that? >> you know, at the heart of it i'm trying to tell a good story and keep the readers turning pages if they're flying across country. but i do try to sneak in a little bit of gentle, social commentary. i think if you get up on a soapbox, you lose effectiveness. somebody was pointing out to me not long ago that i've actually written books that deal with homelessness, that deal with corruption in the church. "death penalty" was a book that i wrote. the book that just came out, "perfect alibi" has a whole story line involving massage parlors here in san francisco and how young people from asia are being exploited. and, you know, somebody said to me, i read this whole book and realized you had covered that, had done it defendantly, and then i realized you were making a point there. so i try not to beat my readers over head, but i do try to get
some of that in. because i think that's important. if you're writing books about lawyers and about crime, you know, there are victims. and i do try to set the world right at the end when i possibly can. and that is, as i said earlier, the advantage of writing novels as opposed to trying real cases. the other point i would make -- and everybody's kind of touched upon it here a little bit. lawyers are not portrayed, in many cases, particularly positively in the media. and a lot of that we bring upon ourselves. but i would also point out that, you know, we all operate in an environment where you have to deal with the cards that are out there. aties cuss finch -- atticus finch didn't have to deal with a
24-hour news cycle. tony serra didn't have to deal with bloggers in his career. i think what's going on in new york city where the head of the i.m.f. was arrested for doing some untorrid things in a big hotel. i found it ironic last night that eliot spitzer was interviewing people talking about these sorts of activities, and that cycle is going on and on. if you want to play a drinking game, you know, who wants to take bets of when we're going to have the first appearance of gloria allred? it's inevitable. i'm getting off the point a little bit here. but at some point i think it was around the time of the o.j. case where you had this confluence of a big public figure, it was a juicy trial, and cable news was just becoming a force. it changed the environment in which we operate, at least criminal system operates. because it's not just cases
anymore, it's entertainment. it's a whole media frenzy on big cases. and i don't think that's a very good thing, but that is the environment in which we operate. and lawyers have to deal with that now. >> a very good point. we have some questions from the audience. i'm going to ask the first one for paulette. in taking tony's essence, who he is as a trial lawyer, how does you tell that story in the book? paulette's book is for sale in the lobby and also at green arcade books here in san francisco. how did you do that? you used your art, obviously, and you used writings. but how did you tell that story? what was your hook? >> well, i am not a particularly
cerebral person. the king that connected me with tony to begin with is that i connected with his energy at the advice relevant level -- visceral level. i felt his energy. and that's how i could translate it, if you will, into my own sense of emotions, the compassion, the rage, the passion, all the various faces that he has. and then in court he acts out all the roles. so you get the full gamut of the human condition going on. i connected with tony at that visceral level. and then i went to a translation process and a sort of distilled, if you will, process of putting it into context. and i was there in many of the trials, the trials that i was
present in. so it is storytelling, but it's storytelling from the gut rather than from the head which i kind of call window shopping. i wasn't interested in window shopping tony. i wanted it to be his energy. i wanted it to encapsulate a life force. i wanted it to show the great range of his humanity which is the full spectrum and extremely difficult to put on a page to say the least. >> the next question i have is for both john and tony. you both agree that the criminal justice system doesn't work, particularly for poor people in the criminal justice system. what would you do to improve it? we'll start with you first, john. what would you improve? this is an imperfect society that we have.
we know that. what can we do to improve it? >> gee. you know, i don't know anything about the criminal justice system. but i think you need to start out in, you know -- we need to have income redistribution in the country. i mean, it's crazy. and if you do that, you know, in an important way, then a lot of these problems are just going to get fixed by themselves. they're fundamentally economic problems. we used to have 90% taxation of, you know, very high income individuals. we don't do that anymore. i meek, god, dividends and capital gains are taxed at 15%. that's just incredible. it's an incredibl incredible st. -- steal. so that's what i would say.
>> well, it's a subject matter that's ripe for hours of discussion. but very quickly, we litigate in the criminal form too many times of actions and behaviors. so the first thing is, take out all the so-called victimless crimes, all the so-called drug or drug-related cases. can you place them in medical forums or other social forums. secondly, mandatory sentences have to go out. thirdly, grand jury has to go out. fourthly, the informant system has to be eliminated. the police powers, which are ever increasing, have to be at least dropped or minimized. fourth amendment, fifth amendment, first amendment rights have to be given more strength than they have, more resources for the defense because, yes, public defenders and good lawyers who are on the
panels, they are defending most of the people who are accused. and they lack the resources because ultimately prosecution with unlimited resources and defense with very, very limited resources. the deeper issues are where the jurors come from and how they're selected, whether or not judges are curtailing due process in court. reform, reform, reform. and it can only come from the inside, from us, the lawyers. from the judicial process. and from those activists who are interested in reforming the system. but we are in grave crises now because the judiciary has been swallowed by the executive and the balance of powers is sad lay miss. [applause] >> we're going to have to bring the panel to a close in a few minutes. we were just asked if there are any closing thoughts that you
have for the audience, before we close it. >> i keep following tony. it's not fair. you know, the system is only as good as the people who are operating within it. and it's only as good as how the resources available to it can be used. and that's not an easy fix. that's a long-time issue. and i don't have a good answer for that attorney i am hopeful we can try in some manner to level the playing field a little more, at least so that the attorneys in my fictional world have it a little easier. but more important, you know, i ha